Players come in and out of Juan Carlos Osorio's Mexico national team, but both when he's present and when he's absent Jonathan dos Santos is making a strong case he can't be rotated out of the side.
While the coach's system calls for fluid movement of the ball and demands that each player be able to pass well and move into places where his teammates can find him, that only worked in practice in one of El Tri's first two contests at the Confederations Cup.
Against Portugal, Mexico was able to control the midfield and worked out a result. Against New Zealand, the team was aimless in the first half, improving only after Hector Herrera came in to help control possession and increase circulation of the ball in both halves of the field. Herrera is a quality player, but it's Dos Santos who has been on the field when Mexico has looked its best - whether it was the 2-2 draw with Portugal or the 3-0 win over Honduras in World Cup qualification.
The Villarreal midfielder has emerged from being a fringe pick for Mexico to being a player who has to start every game, or at least the important ones. And the group-stage finale against Russia will be a big game, and one that should set up nicely for Dos Santos to show his ability.
Russia will have to come out of its shell a bit Saturday, needing a victory to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament, while a point will put Mexico through. While Osorio was asked about the defensive tactics Russia sometimes deploys, he noted that the group he uses will be based on how the opponent looks to play with the host nation perhaps still happy to sit back and play its normal game and seek a goal on the counter.
"We're again going to try to show the idea of play we have against team who sit back and counter with everyone," Osorio said. "In this case, that's the question because of the opponent's need to seek out the result. We'll know this from the starting XI, but we're going to be ready for the possible situation the game presents us with."
With Hector Moreno likely out because of injury, Dos Santos becomes even more important for Mexico. The center back starts many of the attacks himself with his left foot, but if the injury suffered against New Zealand keeps him out against the Russians, a midfielder who can link the center backs to attackers dropping deeper will be crucial. Dos Santos is an expert at deciding when he can make a run forward to be found in space or when he needs to drop back and help a teammate who finds himself in traffic.
Those forward runs also see him arriving in support of the attackers, with Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Carlos Vela benefiting from the defense having to account for Dos Santos arriving at the top of the box. And, in his advanced position, it is often Dos Santos in charge of putting pressure on the opposition's No. 6, looking to win the ball back as quickly as possible and initiate another attack.
With Russia needing to play an attacking style, central midfielder Denis Glushakov may look to get forward more often than he has in Russia's first two group matches. Dos Santos stuck closely to William Carvalho, often forcing Portugal to look for Cristiano Ronaldo over the top rather than playing through the middle.
Dos Santos' set-piece ability is a bonus, but should also be accounted for. His corner kick set up Moreno for the late equalizer against Portugal, one of several dangerous balls he's supplied this summer.
Players who play well will be dropped the next match in Osorio's system, and that's not inherently bad. But there are some players who reach such a level that they must be on the field whenever available. After years of searching for exactly what his place is with the national team, Jona is now at his best and has reached a place where he can't be dropped when the team needs a result.
Osorio said Friday that he's not a fortune-teller and can't predict which players will be injured, who will be physically ready or who performs best in a certain situation. But you don't need to be clairvoyant to see the boost the team gets when Dos Santos is in the lineup and how helpful that jolt will be against Russia.